I See a Darkness: Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur

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Before Val Lewton died of a broken heart (a figurative and then literal one), he produced a string of nine films for RKO Pictures from 1942 to 1946. None of them cost more than $150,000 to make. None ran longer than 75 minutes. All of them were saddled with lurid, focus group-tested titles like Isle of the Dead, The Curse of the Cat People, and The Ghost Ship. “They may think I’m going to do the usual chiller stuff which’ll make a quick profit, be laughed at, and be forgotten,” he told writer DeWitt Bodeen, “but I’m going to fool them…I’m going to do the kind of suspense movie I like.”1

The kind that I like too. Atmospheric2, stylish, literate—I might squeeze two of his films onto an all-time Top Ten list of horror favorites. So the news that Twisted Pictures (the people responsible for the Saw franchise) is in the process of re-making four of Lewton’s RKO classics—including my favorite, I Walked with a Zombie—makes me nauseated. I’m finally old enough to appreciate why critics bemoaned the oversexed Cat People remake in 1982. That film, at least, had a twenty-year-old Nastassja Kinski going for it. All we have to look forward to now is snuff porn. So, rather than look ahead, I thought I might take a look back—at Lewton’s meteoric career, and at a few scenes from his movies that still haunt me. The past is no vaccine for the future, to be sure, but in the here and now it can act as a topical salve.


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In 1933, Lewton was hired by David O. Selznick, for whom he worked as a story editor, assistant editor, and second unit director on A Tale of Two Cities, A Star is Born, Gone with the Wind and, finally, Rebecca. When RKO Pictures decided to start a production unit for “horror programmers” in 1942, Lewton was recruited to head it. Within the constraints I mentioned above, RKO guaranteed him complete artistic freedom. And $250 a week.

His first move was to hire Jacques Tourneur, with whom he had shared second unit duties on A Tale of Two Cities. Tourneur would direct the first three of Lewton’s RKO films: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man—every one a critical and commercial success. Around this partnership (wherein the producer also wrote the final version of every screenplay), Lewton assembled a first-rate creative team that worked on virtually all of his subsequent pictures.

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The studio separated the two men in 1943, deciding they could produce twice as many successful films apart as they could together. Tourneur would go on to direct the noir classic Out of the Past, the supernatural cult favorite Night of the Demon, and one of the better episodes of The Twilight Zone. Lewton continued his run at RKO for another two years (and six films), before suffering a series of crippling setbacks—professional, psychological3, and then physical. He died of a massive coronary in 1951, at the age of forty-six.

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The immediate influence of the small body of work Lewton and Tourneur made together was enormous. Film noir pioneers of the mid-1940’s swallowed the RKO brand of atmospheric suspense practically unchewed. And not just aesthetically. True, Cat People’s photographic vocabulary would be imitated into clichés before the decade was out4. But I mean something more fundamental. The films are full of infidelities, love triangles, domestic cruelty, repression, frigidity, vanity, and more besides, all set on the razor’s edge between the supernatural and the merely neurasthenic (or, in the case of Cat People and The Leopard Man, the psychotic). Film noir wasn’t just interested in great-looking shadows, after all. It was hungry for all kinds of darkness5.

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I’m of the opinion that there are certain scenes all film lovers owe it to themselves to see at least once before they die. Some of these operate directly on the adrenal gland: the interrogation in Marathon Man, for instance. Others go to work on higher brain functions, like the funeral parade in I Am Cuba. Still others affect the whole head at once. Think Orson Welles: the opening shot from Touch of Evil, or The Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors finale. To this last category I would add a short scene from Cat People. It is a chase sequence, first involving two women on foot along a lamp-lit, empty street, then one woman and…something else, perhaps. The total effect of its lighting, framing, editing, performances and – most importantly – sound design is remarkable. I actually shouted “Oh my God!” the first time I saw it.

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The other two films also contain moments of terrible beauty. I Walked with a Zombie, which Lewton pegged accurately as “Jane Eyre in the West Indies,” has several. My favorite involves two women, both dressed in white, walking through a field of sugarcane in the dark, toward the distant drums of a voodoo ceremony. The effect of this scene can’t easily be conveyed with words; to be understood properly it has to be seen, heard, felt. But take it from me: by the end of it, the TV screen is so thoroughly charged with atmosphere one risks a lightning storm in the living room.

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The signature scene of The Leopard Man is different. It has plenty of atmosphere, but is really powered by a series of jump-scares culminating in an orgasmic release of violence (off-screen, but heard). A New Mexican housewife sends her daughter into the desert at night to buy a bag of cornmeal. The girl is afraid. She has heard a leopard is loose nearby. Her mother doesn’t care, and locks the door behind her. Naturally, something bad happens. The way it happens—the editing, in particular—has been cribbed relentlessly by scary movies ever since (so often, in fact, the challenge may be to identify those that don’t quote the scene).

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In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m quite fond of these films. I recommend them unreservedly. Do they have flaws? Sure, but none tragic. And anyway, why should I affect an attitude of neutrality? I’m a film fan, not Switzerland. For first-time viewers, and those who have worn out their VHS copies, all nine RKO titles have recently been packaged as a DVD box set with a new documentary, Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Now in fine—and merely adequate—video stores everywhere. Check it out.

FOOTNOTES:

1. Sources for background information on Lewton and Tourneur include their respective Wikipedia and IMDB pages, Mark A. Viera’s excellent essay “Darkness, Darkness: The Films of Val Lewton,” and Danny Peary’s indispensable Cult Movies.

2. According to Danny Peary: “Lewton’s films were made in direct opposition to horror classics of the past such as Nosferatu (1922), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), Dracula (1931), and King Kong (1933), which scared people with frightening images; he relied on basic universal fears—darkness, sudden movements and sounds—to send chills through his audience. He was convinced that viewers could be scared to a far greater degree by what they imagined in the darkness, or just off screen, than by anything filmmakers could show them. The surprising financial and critical success that the Lewton series obtained is proof positive that his theories on horror, suspense, and terror were correct.”

3. According to Mark A. Vieria: “In the late 1940s the studio system—assaulted by the Supreme Court, hostile senators, and television—was beginning to sag under its own weight. Lewton had trouble playing the game when he knew the rules. Now, ignored by an industry that was making new rules, he grew despondent. He sat in a silent office, sometimes sobbing behind its closed door. “The whole aspect of such waiting is just too corrosive,” Lewton wrote to his mother. “One even begins to doubt one’s own abilities.” [DeWitt] Bodeen said, “I never knew anybody who was so desperately unhappy, who lost all faith in himself.” If he had been able to hold out a bit longer, he might have benefited from the cataclysmic changes that were roiling the motion-picture industry, but he could not.”

4. Its DP was Nicholas Musuraca, whose cinematography was deeply influenced by German Expressionism (by way of Edward Hopper, perhaps—chiaroscuro plus strongly geometric urban naturalism). Some regard a 1940 film Musuraca lensed, Strangers on the Third Floor, as the first film noir. By Cat People in 1942, his style was fully mature. He shot five of Lewton’s nine RKO pictures: Cat People, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People, and Bedlam. These films (and Out of the Past, on which he was reunited with Tourneur) had a definite influence on the lighting, framing, and camera set-ups of many B-grade noirs and (I would argue) Hitchcock’s Notorious, Ray’s They Live by Night, and even Welles’ The Stranger.

5. What’s more, the RKO films emphasize their female characters in a way that was almost unheard of at the time (remember, these films were made during WWII). While the men in them dither, drink, cower and conspire, the women act. Sometimes unkindly. Sometimes homicidally. Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie didn’t give birth to the noir femme fatale, but I do think they helped nurse the idea along.

21 Responses to “I See a Darkness: Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur”

  1. James Shearhart Says:

    Excellent essay! And I’m with you on the shadowy chase in Cat People – I saw it at an early age, and it colored my relationship to females for decades (if not to this day). I rewatched Walked with a Zombie a few months ago, and it didn’t work as well as I remembered, mostly because I know too much about Haitian Vodou now, and the plot and dialogue were a bit painful – I’m now thinking of rewatching it with the sound off….

    Again, well done!

  2. Jon Munger Says:

    Lovely. Lewton’s use of monster as metaphor should be required viewing for every wannabe horror writer out there.
    I also want to mention three of Lewton’s later movies, Bedlam, Isle of the Dead, and The Body Snatchers, all of which starred Boris Karloff in his best (if not most famous) roles. While a bit less atmospheric than Cat People or Seventh Victim, they’re worth it to see what Karloff could have been had he not suffered through typecasting and been teamed with a brilliant writer and director.

    Now there’s a man who deserves his own Coilhouse essay…

  3. gmoke Says:

    There’s also a certain melancholy sweetness to the Lewton films I’ve seen. Love in the face of mortality, the ability of human affection to persist in the midst danger. These are very ambivalent and ambiguous films and that, as well as the shadows and sounds, is what gives them such power.

  4. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Yes, yes, YES! This collection will be mine. AaAaAaaaaaall mine! Cat People und Zombie were my first oldies, back when. Just as iconic to me as Drac or Frankenstein.

  5. john colby Says:

    In the most recent dvd release for CATPEOPLE Paul Shrader talks about the two films and how he got into making the 82 one. He calims he made no effort to “re-make” the film but just write a new script ect. The original is more known for all of the action happening just off camera and leaving it to the views imagination as to what the cat people actually looked like. The same idea is in the Original “the Haunting” which also had a bad “remake”…

  6. EatTheLemons Says:

    Amazing article. Love your blog in general. I haven’t seen these movies, but I bet they’re the sort of thing that make me wish I was around back when they had midnight doublefeatures. Have you ever seen El Topo?

  7. Tequila Says:

    These films have been required viewing for more than just film fans. I enjoyed them as a teen and more so now (though the wait for the current DVD set was a long time coming…)

    Atmosphere really is key to why they work and as much credit as German expressionism gets(rightly so of course) the reality too is cost and the availability of supplies & technicians fueled much of the artistic choices these films had.

    It doesn’t take away credit from the creators involved mind you but the classic “The Bad and the Beautiful” has a wonderful scene that highlights the raw reality of this. Making the best with what you have available is often the most effective way to make creative choices.

    When the budget doesn’t allow for the kind of creatures, lighting, and people one needs…the darkness and priority on atmosphere over spectacle become key.

    One of the wonderful side effects of having the deep blacks and shadows was how good it made even well worn sets look. It gave cities a real character and turned the average bedroom into quite the menacing place.

    Not to mention actors themselves looked great…mix that with other key talent like John Alton (who I would argue was less influenced by these films than one would imagine…the man was a true master in his own right.) and Anthony Mann and you have quite the epic talent in that era playing with the same ideas if not exactly the same techniques.

  8. wchambliss Says:

    EatTheLemons, I have seen it. I’m a big fan of Jodorowsky’s work, on film and in print. But as much as I like El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre, L’Incal, The Metabarons, Son of the Gun, The White Lama, etc., my favorite Jodorowsky project is one he never realized: Dune. He was the first filmmaker to own the rights to Frank Herbert’s famous SF novel. What he proposed to do with them was audacious. The story, in his own words: http://www.duneinfo.com/unseen/jodorowsky.asp.

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Jodorowsky in New York a few years ago. That evening, he told a story about visiting Andre Breton’s house in which he accidentally walked in while the old man was on the toilet. He said Breton shouted so loudly it woke his dogs, which all started barking and chasing Jodorowsky, who fled. They chased him out of the house and into the street. Eventually, he got down on all fours to run with them through Paris, barking like mad: one of the pack.

  9. Tequila Says:

    That would have been a fun version of Dune (I was never a huge fan but the potential for something pretty amazing film wise is clearly there…)

    Sounds like it was less Hollywood that killed it than it was the usual level of competition that happens with projects like this. Everyone wants to be the first to the punch…still I hold out hope something happens with The Metabarons. Even just speaking commercially that has more potential than Dune has shown in recent years (though sci-fi is in bad need of a renaissance film wise these days…)

    Starz did a lil Midnight Movies documentary not long ago that has a great section on El Topo…worth checking out.

  10. Maw Says:

    I had never heard of Lewton before reading this. I’ve now seen two of his films in quick succession- I Walked with a Zombie and Body Snatcher.

    Sweet miracle of life at last I’ve found you!

    Good show.

  11. wchambliss Says:

    Tequila, I think what really killed the Jodorowsky Dune project was Jodorowsky. Specifically, his hubris and lack of focus. Investors likely pulled out after they experienced some combination of the following concerns: 1.) “Oh shit, he won’t stop piling on new ideas,” 2.) “Oh shit, he’s egomaniacally attached to all of them,” and 3.) “Oh shit, he’s trying to make a work of cosmic significance out of Dune—a new holy text.”

    Did you notice the creative team he put together? Moebius, HR Giger, Christopher Foss, Dan O’Bannon, et al? Ridley Scott swept in and grabbed virtually all of them for Alien in 1978. And then almost used them all again for his own version of Dune, which was supposed to be his follow-up project. Instead, he abandoned it in pre-production and went off to make Blade Runner—whereupon Dino De Laurentiis handed over the reins to David Lynch.

    Maybe I should write a piece about Jodorowsky’s Dune for Coilhouse. I mean, come on… Orson Welles as the morbidly obese Baron Harkonnen, bobbing around on an anti-gravity inner tube in a palace designed by HR Giger to a soundtrack by Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd! Salvador Dali as the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV—a performance for which Dali would himself be played by an automaton likeness 75% of the time, for financial reasons. It goes on and on…

    As for The Metabarons, I’d like to see Luc Besson do it as a sequel to The Fifth Element—itself (rather faithfully) adapted from a storyline in the same Jodorowsky-Moebius comic L’Incal from which Metabarons spun off. What do you think about that idea?

  12. Ben Morris Says:

    The only Lewton/Tourneur film I’ve seen is Cat People, I agree that the chase scene is one of those scenes. I need to see the other films.

    Re: the Jodorowsky Dune: Don’t forgot the other band that was going to be providing music for the soundtrack, Magma. The linked clip is a fairly recent recording, but the song is from ’73; I really what starts happening 2:40 or so into it.

  13. wchambliss Says:

    Ben, I’m no vulcanologist, but that sounds pretty good.

    I can imagine an alternate version of Dune set to Krautrock. Something from Can’s Tago Mago, maybe. Blue-in-blue-eyed Paul Maud’Dib, tripping on the Water of Life, alone in the vast emptiness of Arrakis, facing an unbroken horizon, waiting, watching for worm sign in the desert’s pre-dawn hush. Then the sand starts to tremble, almost imperceptibly, and Damo Suzuki’s quavering voice begins:

    When I saw the mushroom head…
    When I saw the mushroom head…
    When I saw the mushroom head…
    I was born and I was dead.

    Or something to that effect.

  14. didimono Says:

    …thought that said TIM Conway at first. I larfed.

  15. wchambliss Says:

    didimono, one can only imagine what Lewton and Tourneur might have done with The Apple Dumpling Gang.

  16. EatTheLemons Says:

    wchambliss, I just watched The Cat People and The Seventh Victim. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be pointed to these films. The lines are clever, but not artificially clever like they are in “Juno” everything about these films seems paradoxically real. And I do love the women, they are delicate and beautiful, but they aren’t at all part of the scenery, they’re the focus and the reason the plot is moving along. Looking forward to watching more. I think I need a required viewing list.

    And the link you left for Jodorowsky’s Dune didn’t work, but I found another one here:
    http://www.duneinfo.com/unseen/jodorowsky.asp

  17. Tequila Says:

    @wchambliss…”As for The Metabarons, I’d like to see Luc Besson do it as a sequel to The Fifth Element—itself (rather faithfully) adapted from a storyline in the same Jodorowsky-Moebius comic L’Incal from which Metabarons spun off. What do you think about that idea?…”

    If they can kiss and make up I’d be the first in line. Last I heard they were still very much pissed at Besson for using that comic as “inspiration” …then again this is Film we’re talking about. They’ve been stealing from comics for decades rarely giving the proper praise until it’s been convenient or advantageous to do so.

    If that scenario didn’t pan out I’d actually like to see a director who knows how to do character work take a crack at it. Like Mamoru Oshii…it’d be a nice project to see him either do live action or animated. Cause when it comes to Sci-fi he’s the only one doing anything interesting with it (well him and Production IG as a whole.)

  18. wchambliss Says:

    Tequila, I’m also a fan of Oshii’s work. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I think Ghost in the Shell is terrific, and that Avalon and Innocence are both quite beautiful, if flawed, films. That said, I have also found (in no particular order) The American Astronaut, Primer, BLAME! Ver.0.11: Salvaged Disc by Cibo, Battle Royale, Paprika, Children of Men, The Future is Wild!, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and The Fountain, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, The Mist, A Scanner Darkly, the television series Firefly (and the film Serenity), and the first 45 minutes of I Am Legend all quite interesting in recent years.

  19. wchambliss Says:

    EatTheLemons, do you mean “a required viewing list” of Lewton’s RKO films? That’s easy. Watch all of them! If the weather is particularly crummy, you could do it in a day. A more comprehensive list is beyond me. “Required viewing” can mean too many things. I’d be torn between films I admire and those I love (that is, when they don’t overlap), between “important” films and merely interesting ones, between those which transcend genres and those which epitomize them. In the end, my list would probably run into the hundreds and be less useful as a guide to you than as a biography of me (however abstract). Like all good lists, I suppose.

    That said, here are five more horror flicks I adore:

    Deep Red (dir. Dario Argento)
    The Invisible Man (dir. James Whale)
    Kwaidan (dir. Kobayashi)
    The Black Cat (dir. Ulmer)
    Seconds (dir. Frankenheimer)

  20. Tequila Says:

    @wchamblis…Some good properties there but they are so few and far between or variations on what’s been seen its hard to give proper credit at times. While I didn’t enjoy some of those titles listed (like Richard Kelly’s work or pi and the fountain) they are good in terms of adding variety. Guess I’m more dissatisfied with the fact we’ve not seen a BIG sci-fi franchise take flight or bring about a sense of wonder like 2001, Star Wars, Alien(s), etc. They each have value for a variety of reasons and remain potent for generations now as they did then.

    The last era of Sci-fi films to even attempt that sense of “what if?” on a big scale was the Carl Sagan adaptation of Contact the above mentioned pi, and the first Matrix (though ExistenZ was damned good at playing off the same pool of ideas.)

    I only mention those because they got heavy media attention and in the case of pi became the “Die Hard” of the Independent Film Channel.

    I’ll readily admit I’m a total Ghost in the Shell fanboy of the Manga, Anime, and Films…they continue to provoke some interesting questions about what feels more like the real world to come than any other portrayed currently.

    Though if I had to pic one future world I’d choose Enki Bilal’s comics and film Immortal to play in. Shark Head Hitmen, Immortal Gods with unrestrained libidos , and sexy dames with blue hair…too much to love.

    But hey at least we have Torchwood ;D

  21. wchambliss Says:

    Tequila, I like Bilal’s stuff too. Immortel and the Nikopol Trilogy comics from which it sprang are both pretty swell (although I must say I prefer The Hunting Party—however gorgeously rendered his science fiction stories might be). As for blue hair, I concur: there is much to love.

    Regarding the deeper issue you raise about the current state of SF films, I’m conflicted. I certainly think that some of the ones I mentioned in my previous post press the big red “WHAT IF?” button you’re talking about. Of those, Primer is my favorite—with the first 45 minutes of I Am Legend running a distant second. Have you seen either? The former handles the discovery of time travel (in the context of a garage-based start-up company) in a way that blew my hair back. It’s a breathlessly paced, exposition-free mad scientist story. The latter—ostensibly another Richard Matheson retread—starts off like a cross between Robinson Crusoe on Mars and Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us. I found the director’s vision of an unpopulated Manhattan under siege—not by silly, Elasticman-type vampires, but by nature, reasserting itself in the absence of humans—hauntingly beautiful. And had the film concerned itself only with Will Smith’s character slowly going mad for lack of company, it might have been one of my favorites in 2007.

    But I know what you mean: for all that it sometimes looks like Kubrick himself shot it on a $10,000 budget, Primer isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey. In some ways, I think 2001, Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner, etc. have all helped to diminish our capacity for wonder—by exciting it too much, too often. Frankly, I feel a little over-potentiated. I had a similar feeling in the Uffizi (the antique version of Kim’s Mondo Video), walking through room after room full of masterpieces. Eventually, too much awe benumbed me. I found myself hurrying through the Baroque galleries at the end, thinking, “Ach, why couldn’t Carracci do something as amazing as di Cosimo’s ‘Perseus Frees Andromeda’?”

    Maybe what our futurists need is simply more future—for some time to pass since the last generation of major touchstone films (and for audiences to reuptake the stuff their dreams are made of) before filmmakers try to shock our sensory nerves again with ideas that ride the mind’s lightning.